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Parties should make direct election of president a priority

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Message Ryan O'Donnell
The chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican parties are making a lot of noise lately about reaching out.

Democratic Chairman Howard Dean has been touting a "50 State Strategy" as a way for his party to claw its way back into power. According to Dean, the goal is "an active, effective group of Democrats organized in every single precinct in the country." To achieve this, the Dems are bulk-hiring, looking to train new recruits to head up efforts in states previously neglected.

Paul Hackett's near victory in an Ohio special election would seem to attest to the wisdom of this strategy. Hackett lost so narrowly in so heavily Republican a U.S. House district that it was virtually a win for a disheartened party hungry to go on the offensive.

But let's be honest. Come the next presidential election season, Democratic organizers in red states are going to have trouble getting their calls returned. Democratic candidates aren't going to win such states as Mississippi, Texas or Utah any time soon, even if the party nominates a candidate with "red appeal" such as Evan Bayh of Indiana, or a heartland candidate such as Tom Vilsack of Iowa. Every Democratic voter in Texas is as locked out of the system as every Republican voter in Massachusetts.

If Dean is serious about this "50 state" philosophy, the Democrats should pursue the true realization of the ideal. Only direct election of the president would engage all voters in all 50 states. Currently, battleground states monopolize the campaign -- the Floridas, Ohios and Nevadas of the country. Safe states are nothing but rest areas on the presidential highway, where candidates stop to hold fund-raisers and refuel their bank accounts. Presidential candidates engaging all the states would be good for the country. As long as the Electoral College remains, however, that just won't happen.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman has been working hard to coax more African Americans into the GOP tent. Mehlman visited the National Black Chamber of Commerce this summer, where he insisted, "Republicans are committed to inclusion." Addressing the NAACP, Mehlman defended the administration on what Dean charged was a weak response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit predominantly poor and black neighborhoods hard.

Mehlman could go beyond rhetoric. To make good on the promise of inclusion, the GOP should change its presidential primary system. 2008 wanna-be candidates already are making pilgrimages to the two meccas of the presidential race, Iowa and New Hampshire. By virtue of their first in the nation status, these states make or break presidential candidates of both parties time after time.

These two states are -ahem- overwhelmingly white. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's fair to say they do not represent the United States as a whole. Is this "inclusion?" To reverse the problem, both parties should embrace a fairer primary system, one that doesn't shut out the majority of the country.

A commitment to real inclusion of African Americans should push Republicans and Democrats alike to make direct election of the president a priority. Take a look at the swing states, of which there are fewer and fewer: 30 percent of white Americans live there. In stark contrast, only 21 percent of African Americans, 18 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of Asian Americans live in competitive states. That is a terrible disparity.

Today, the parties are trying to expand their tents -- one in order to survive and the other to lock in their future dominance. But without real attention to the underlying electoral problems that prevent all 50 states from mattering, and all people from counting equally, these chairmen are expanding their tents with hot air.
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Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election reform group in Washington DC.
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